You’ve read a lot about the art of memoir, about the power of telling a story from the personal point of view. Despite my well-known prejudices against injecting yourself into your nonfiction, I want to fess up to yet another area – besides the obvious example of memoirs – where putting yourself in the story pays off.
It’s humor. As is always noted by my friends at Project Vibe, if you seek to poke fun, there’s no better or funnier target than yourself. Even if your true aim is to satirize some foible in society, making yourself ostensibly the butt of the joke is the best way to get a laugh while making your point.
Think about how Dave Barry or the late Erma Bombeck tease the humor out of everyday life. Barry writes about his fixation (and incompetence) with “guy” stuff and gadgets, and about his kids and pets. Bombeck made a career out of causing us to chuckle at her her foibles as a mom and wife. We see the humor in our own lives through the slightly warped prism of theirs.
Don’t Be Cruel
Why does this first-person approach work so well in humor? If you want to satirize, say, junk mail, why not go straight for the jugular and rip into your true subject?
I think the answer lies at least partly in Americans’ sensibilities. We don’t cotton to bullies or to humor at someone else’s expense – particularly not in print. What we might forgive – and even laugh at – in a Saturday Night Live skit seems downright cruel in the cold light of ink on paper.
Putting yourself in the picture sucks the scorn and sermonizing right out of your story: You’re not mocking society from some authorial pulpit, acting like you’re better than most people. Shucks, no, you’re even more enmeshed than your readers in the zaniness of runaway technology, Beanie Babies, holiday hoopla or what-have-you. Poking fun at yourself while exaggerating the silliness of your subject matter – that’s the secret of the first-person humor of Barry, Bombeck and scores of lesser imitators.
If you want to vent satirically about the pressing problem of grocery carts scattered like wheeled land mines in parking lots, for example, don’t start on a note of complaining rant. Instead, confess that you, too, neglect to return your cart to the designated cart corral. Then exaggerate your guilt over this shopping-cart sin, and the stealth you employ to get away with it. Blow up the seriousness of the resulting problem – beyond mere scratched bumpers to some horrendous cart gridlock that threatens western civilization (has anyone checked dinosaur fossil beds for tangled shopping carts that might have triggered their extinction?).
Reaching for such ridiculous extremes would seem cranky rather than cartoonish if delivered from the superior remove of the third person. But make your essay a “confession” instead of a diatribe and you invite readers to laugh along with you at your intended target.
Giving Humor Credit
For instance, most people are barraged with offers for credit cards. This junk mail is a little annoying and a tad puzzling (what if somebody were to take them up on all their offers?) – a good recipe for a humorous essay. Just exaggerate the deluge of offers, spin out the consequences of accepting them, tweak the noses of bankers (always a popular target), and let the laughs roll in.
But how to pull it off without seeming, well, small and mean? I tackled this topic several years ago in my book of Midwestern humor, Double-Parked on Main Street, by putting myself at the center of the joke. I facetiously assumed that, gosh, bankers are smart guys (or else they wouldn’t have all that money!) and so they must know what they’re doing: “Who am I to argue with the big cheeses at Bank of America or Chase Manhattan? If these bankers think I’m worth it, I would be churlish to argue otherwise.”
But taking the humor high road doesn’t mean taking your target too seriously. Even as I good-naturedly asserted that the bankers must be right, I upped the satirical stakes by exaggerating the problem.
I hear from the Chase Manhattan Bank more often than from my parents. . . . For all Chase Manhattan knows, I might have recently been released from Sing Sing after serving multiple counts of fraud, embezzling and writing rubber checks at Oky Doky stores all over town. . . . My account balance might have more zeroes than the Cubs scoreboard at Wrigley Field.
Note that it’s not enough to speculate that for all the bank knows, “my checking balance might be under $100.” Humor demands that you kick it up a notch – heck, several notches: “Sing Sing” (the specific is funnier than just “jail” or “prison”), “writing rubber checks,” and so on. (“Oky Doky stores,” an actual Iowa institution, are obviously funnier than “convenience stores.”) I let my imagination run wild, but all about me – not about the bankers, not exactly. Raving in exaggerations about Chase Manhattan having all the caution of a cat on a tuna boat would have just sounded nasty. Readers don’t respond to nasty.
Much more effective, instead, to follow up my imaginings about Sing Sing and bounced checks with:
But America’s banks trust me. That knowledge gives me a warm glow every day as I throw away America’s banks’ letters.
From there, I kicked it up several more notches on the exaggeration scale, likening the liberal credit being offered me to what banks must offer South American countries (which were then much in the news, teetering on default):
“Dear Generalissimo,” the letters probably begin. “Big Bucks Bank would like to extend you a credit line of $500 million. Your Big Bucks Bank Visa card will find smiling acceptance at arms merchants, plutonium dealers and mercenary bureaus worldwide.”
I carried on in this silly vein for several more paragraphs before swinging the focus – this is important – back to me. Through repetition and suggestion, I tied my South American fantasy into my mailbox overflowing with credit-card offers, where my story had begun. So I finished:
The next time a major American bank offers me a credit card with a charge limit equal to the gross national product of Paraguay, I’ll take ’em up on it . . . Then maybe I’ll go shop for some plutonium.
Notice that I picked “Paraguay” for my exaggerated statement, in keeping with my earlier South American diversion. The final notion of shopping for plutonium echoes my imaginary “Dear Generalissimo” offer.
What was I really making fun of in this little essay? Profligate banks, bankrupt Latin American dictatorships, or my own temptation to take advantage of these credit-card offers? All of the above, of course. But putting myself in the mix made the rest palatable. So go ahead and laugh. Just remember to start with yourself and to exaggerate the situation. Pretty soon the world will be laughing with you.